****/**** Image A Sound A- Extras A-
starring Claudia Cardinale, Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, Charles Bronson
screenplay by Sergio Donati and Sergio Leone and Mickey Knox
directed by Sergio Leone
by Bill Chambers Ennio Morricone's score for Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West is responsive and we're conditioned to expect dictatorial. For the first time in the enduring Morricone-Leone collaboration, a kind of pantomime pervades the music, with notes and actions so closely coordinated that the Charles Bronson character's theme becomes diegetic: Every time Bronson, called Harmonica because the instrument is practically his first language, blows into his harp, the resulting noise is incongruously omnipresent. (It seems to come from everywhere but his instrument.) The film has been likened--and regarded as a precursor--to rock videos for how inextricable its sound and image are, a by-product of Leone playing Morricone's ready-made compositions on set. Leone later applied this pre-synch technique to Once Upon a Time in America, but there, it was used more as a mood-enhancer than as a cue card.
Arguably, the only director more predisposed to this sort of thing is/was Stanley Kubrick, who spent a lifetime looking for new ways to exact control over the delinquent beast known as a motion picture production. But one would never confuse Leone's and Kubrick's perfectionism, which for Leone was painterliness and for Kubrick something closer to incertitude. Artists and hypnotists alike, both, Leone and Kubrick nonetheless made very different films, the former's proof that you can obsess about the details and still emerge looking whimsical--Leone worked to suggest capriciousness. On Raiders of the Lost Ark, Paul Freeman had a serendipitous encounter with a fly in the middle of a take, thrilling Steven Spielberg; the same thing happens to Jack Elam in Once Upon a Time in the West, but Leone planted the fly. When the insect wouldn't behave, Leone slathered poor Elam's face in honey. He calculated his happy accidents, in other words, but it shouldn't diminish what we think of his abilities, talent too often linked with the filmmaker's lack of a disciplined aesthetic in the Lars von Trier era.
Hypnotist, you ask? Take the opening sequence of Once Upon a Time in the West: Inspired by percussionist John Cage, who purportedly based the decision of what notes to play while recording "Music of Changes" on a coin toss, Morricone borrowed Cage's popular method of assembling an orchestra out of found objects. The prologue's alternating murmurs of a telegraph, a windmill, dripping water, and winged pests coalesce into a metronomic hum that transports you irreversibly to LeoneLand, a gathering place for western archetypes of yore. (It's a small genre after all.) French social theorist Jean Baudrillard, who has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity thanks to his Simulacra and Simulation making a cameo on Keanu Reeves's bookshelf in The Matrix, dubbed Once Upon a Time in the West "the first post-modern movie," implying that it is a summary of the western rather than a western itself. That way lies truth, misnomer, and peril: Comprising film theorists-turned-auteurs (just as Once Upon a Time in the West scenarist and future giallo maestro Dario Argento began his movie career as a print critic), France's Nouvelle Vague movement fathered self-referential cinema years before Leone's ascendance. Too, this school of thought is a hair's-breadth away from the contempt Pauline Kael termed "fear of movies."
I see that happening right now with Quentin Tarantino's coruscating Kill Bill, Vol. 1--scores of reviewers who insist that the movie is cool but irrelevant. No film that begins with a pregnant woman getting shot in the head and later finds a male nurse hiring the woman's comatose body out as a love doll could be about nothing if it tried. Tarantino may have put "thirty years of grindhouse moviegoing in a duck press," but the defensive posturing--that this makes Kill Bill, Vol. 1 a measly succession of references (as if the mainstream would know Sonny Chiba from Sonny Bono without Tarantino going on the talk shows)--speaks to the pandemic, indefatigable notion that allowing genre to move you will somehow lessen its entertainment value. Baudrillard's rush to say something definitive on the subject of Once Upon a Time in the West is, if not entirely justifiable, then understandable, since his homeland is the only country in the world in which the film screened unexpurgated on a regular basis--the nation's intelligentsia weren't about to take that for granted.
It's easy to trainspot the picture's references (and it was probably even easier back in the late-Sixties, when a film like Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar was little more than a decade old), but imperative that you not begrudge the movie its homages. As with Kill Bill (a revenge tale not unlike Once Upon a Time in the West), Leone has kept the wheat and thrown out the chaff of the film's antecedents, and in so doing has engineered a superwestern that holds you in constant thrall. If it doesn't have the subversive impact it used to (startling contemporary audiences, Henry Fonda's villainous entrance was bound to lose significance with age), it's almost gained in integrity, its Marxist bent precariously skeptical of the American dream, its victimization of children as taboo-shattering as ever, and its heroine (top-billed Claudia Cardinale) treated with reverence but not any especial revisionism. (Political correctness beset historical pictures thereafter.) Though elegiac, Once Upon a Time in the West is too vital to be a flat-out elegy, too influential to be a lament. It very simply matters.
Once Upon a Time in the West finally arrives on DVD in Region 1 in a 2-disc "Special Collector's Edition" from Paramount that recycles the content of their R2 package. The first platter contains the movie in a blemish-free 2.30:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation that bests the studio's mid-Nineties LaserDisc restoration. If the colours have an unmistakable Sixties burnish, the transfer is impeccably clear and bold. Compression artifacts do not interfere despite the fat running time of 165 minutes (note that this is the length of the mid-'80s "international" restoration (as opposed to Paramount's 1969 bowdlerization, hacked down to 145 minutes)). There's a Dolby Digital 5.1 remix on board that fills the soundstage nicely, with some innocuous front-to-rear pans as locomotives soar past the camera, but I found the original mono recording, remastered for DVD in 2.0, equally fine. Disc 1 includes a screen-specific piecemeal commentary that assembles directors John Carpenter, Alex Cox, John Milius, and (a petty) Bernardo Bertolucci (who scripted the film's treatment with Argento), Leone biographer Sir Christopher Frayling, Dr. Sheldon Hall, actors Cardinale and Gabriele Ferzetti, and DP Tonino Delli Colli. (I think that covers everybody.) It's a pithy track prone to fanboy lapses where Cox and especially Carpenter and Milius are concerned, but as all involved return for the breviloquent documentaries of Disc 2, a listen can't help but feel slightly gratuitous.
Occasionally incoherent (as in the construction of an anecdote debating whether Cardinale appears nude (or was asked to, or some combination) in Once Upon a Time in the West) and instantly recognizable as being of British origin (it's photographed and assembled like an episode of Channel 4's "Naked Hollywood"), Disc 2's three making-of featurettes--"An Opera of Violence" (29 mins.), "The Wages of Sin" (20 mins.), and "Something to do with Death" (18 mins.), each helmed by commentary moderator Lancelot Narayan--are illuminating in toto. Carpenter is really starting to physically deteriorate, and his incapacity to see the film from an analytical perspective doesn't jibe with his egghead reputation. Leone (sick to death of westerns post-The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, he says that the powers-that-be forced him to continue in the genre with Once Upon a Time in the West because "people are not willing to forgive success") and Fonda surface in archival footage guaranteed to raise a smile, while Ferzetti and the luminous Cardinale (smoking and sipping a martini throughout her interview) avow Leone's affection for actors. It's Frayling, however, who offers the most consistently insightful perspective, slickly debunking the myths surrounding Leone's beginnings in the Italian film industry and later guiding us through the picture's locations, all carefully chosen for their iconic resonance.
Rounding out the set: Entys Dickinson's 6-minute "Railroad: Revolutionising the West" (note the British spelling), which draws a few intriguing parallels--via a mixture of talking heads and intertitles--between an actual rail baron and Once Upon a Time in the West's Mr. Morton (Ferzetti); a 5-minute animated gallery of precious production stills; cast profiles; a hidden trailer done up in an au courant style; and the U.S. theatrical trailer from 1969. Originally published: November 10, 2003.